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Venezuela expels 3 US officials amid protest tensions

CARACAS — President Nicolas Maduro on Monday ordered the expulsion of three US Embassy officials after Washington came to the defense of an opposition hard-liner accused by Venezuela’s leader of responsibility for bloodshed during antigovernment protests.

Maduro did not identify the consular officials but charged that intelligence officials who tailed them the past two months found evidence they were trying to infiltrate Venezuelan universities, a hotbed of recent unrest, under the cover of doing visa outreach.

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Triggering the expulsion was the Obama administration’s siding with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is being hunted by police as Maduro accuses him of leading a ‘‘fascist’’ plot to oust the socialist government two months after it won mayoral elections by a landslide.

Maduro said State Department official Alex Lee, in a phone conversation with Venezuela’s ambassador to the Washington-based Organization of American States, warned that arresting the 42-year-old former mayor would bring serious negative consequences with international ramifications.

‘‘These are unacceptable, insolent demands,’’ Maduro said during a televised address Sunday night. ‘‘I don’t take orders from anyone in the world.’’

There was no immediate reaction from the US government, which has denied the accusations that it is plotting with the opposition against him. Washington has not had an ambassador in Caracas since 2010.

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